The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700. – book reviews
Martha C. Skeeters
David Harris Sacks has successfully produced an unusual and ambitious work. One would not expect an economic history full of statistics to appear in the series “The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics” edited by Stephen Greenblatt. But Sacks has effectively meshed the city’s economic, social, political and cultural history on a grid of theory to explore Bristol as a paradigm of the development of mercantile capitalism. While the story is local, it is also national and international. The “widening gate” of the title signifies the transition from a medieval city confined by walls and protective of its gates, a microcosm, to the early modern city integrated into the larger world. In this provocative work Sacks is after strands of realities, and he finds them; and like the magical and industrious spider, he weaves beautiful and sturdy patterns. Recognizing the work’s complexity, he also patiently provides explicit explanations of what he is doing and why, useful summaries, and carefully considered transitions.
Sacks’ story begins with England’s loss of Bordeaux in 1453. The staple trade of English cloth for French wine disappeared and Bristol’s merchants moved on to the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean. By the mid-sixteenth century the central theme of the story had begun. Long-distance merchants dealing only with wholesale goods (mere merchants), attempted to gain a monopoly on long-distance trade, excluding retailers and manufacturers. The conflict thus engendered was evident throughout the period. It affected the city’s internal political life, and appeals to national authority resulted in greater integration of the locality into the national state. In addition constitutional changes transformed the governing elite from representatives of the autonomous community to representatives of the Crown in the community, who recognized that their own authority was protected by this association.
Sacks also examines related religious and cultural developments. His attempt to connect economic and ideological change in late medieval Bristol may be the weakest point in the book. He argues upon scant evidence that growing disinterest in the cloth gilds evidenced rejection of the gilds’ religious practices. It would not be surprising to find cloth workers’ gilds challenged by protocapitalist opportunities. However, the gilds were certainly not the only providers of opportunities for religious expression and consolation in a city with four friaries, eighteen parish churches, two monastic institutions and many chapels associated with hospitals and almshouses. Sacks is right in suggesting connections among clothworkers, Lollards and the preaching of Hugh Latimer against purgatory, the veneration of saints and pilgrimages. But instead of connecting Latimer to the magisterial Reformation, Sacks sees only an ideological breakdown from below. Given current debates among historians of the Reformation concerning the importance of influences from above and below upon religious and ecclesiastical change, it seems strange to see Sacks take such a strong position on the basis of so little evidence. Perhaps it is partly due to his desire to comment upon the power of the “ruled” to affect events when in fact his research and story focus on the city’s elites.
Ignoring the magisterial Reformation also leads Sacks to see the disappearance of civic rituals as primarily a reflection of changes in urban realities rather than a consequence of royal policy. His readings of civic rituals, moreover, while imaginative, are not placed in the context of civic ritual as a whole. His brief description of Corpus Christi Day celebrations seem to reflect what we know of other urban settings rather than of Bristol. And unfortunately his reading of the civic authorities’ visits to the weavers’ chapel of St. Katherine and the mariners’ chapel of St. Clement is marred by his mistaken placement of the latter in the parish of St. Augustine instead of St. Michael. This invalidates his view that the officials entered the rival jurisdiction of the abbey of St. Augustine in an effort to symbolically unify the city. This mistake, though small, also calls into question other assertions associated with topography.
Not until the 1620s and the 1630s does Sacks find religious divisions within the ongoing saga of economic rivalry, with merchant monopolists being Laudians and some anti-monopolists turning to radical Puritanism. While these reflect the hierarchical social views of the former and the communitarian views of the latter, most individuals found room to express their socio-economic differences within orthodox Calvinism. When forced to take sides in the civil war, most merchant oligopolists of the Merchant Venturers Society favored the King, many shopkeepers and craftsmen favored Parliament. Still, Sacks claims, this was not simply a matter of narrow self-interest; it reflected ideologies developed over years of internal economic and political rivalry which affected their relationship to local community and nation.
The second half of the seventeenth century saw the Atlantic trade develop, primarily the export of labor for tobacco and sugar. This offered new opportunities to challenge the Merchant Venturers. Many of these challengers were radical sectaries whose vision of religion and society focused on self-empowerment based upon the individual’s relation to God. Although limitations on their political power prevented them from fighting against economic regulation by the merchant elite, they used the resources they had within themselves and their community to ensure success. Their practice of setting the same price for all customers rather than haggling on the basis of particular circumstance, though based on their religious sense of justice, also matched the sophisticated and impersonal economic system which had developed. Their eventual social and political integration came with the larger society’s adoption of their ideology of economic individualism. Political and religious rivalry were transmuted into economic and social cooperation. The circle was completed, the city transformed.
This is a fascinating and, for the most part, convincing story. The book is a model of sophistication which most historians would wish to emulate. It is not surprising that the University of California Press has honored this volume as a Centennial Book, one of only 100 published between 1990 and 1995 “as an example of the Press’s finest publishing and bookmaking traditions. . . .”
Martha C. Skeeters Austin College
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group